Tag Archives: technical expertise

How Much Technical Expertise Do Supervisors Need?

Among the many complaints about supervisors I’ve heard over the years is: “Our supervisor doesn’t know how to do the work we do” or “We know more about how to do the work than our supervisor.” This tends to come up particularly in technical types of work, both blue collar and white. As a consequence, the employees say, they can’t respect the supervisor, he or she can’t effectively supervise them, and so on.

Employees can feel very strongly about this. But I’ve always been skeptical as to whether a supervisor needs to have more than a passable amount of expertise in the relevant areas — except to the extent, of course, that the supervisor is doing some of the technical work him or herself.  

Well, my skepticism has been borne out by none other than Google.  In 2009, Google began analyzing in-house data to figure out what made a good Google manager. The project, named Project Oxygen (not sure I get the metaphor), recently came out with its results and as reported in The New York Times, a Google HR team prioritized the information gathered and found that technical expertise – in Google’s case, e.g., the ability to write computer code – came in last of the eight main qualities of a good manager. 

 The reason for this, I think, is fairly obvious: the skills needed to be a good supervisor or manager have little to do with technical expertise and everything to do with “softer” but equally difficult people and organizational skills. So does this mean that complaints about a supervisor’s lack of technical expertise are all wet? Not necessarily, but it does mean that one has to delve further into the complaint to fully understand the issue and see if it might be a poor articulation of an entirely different problem.

I’d also add that putting technical people in supervisory positions for which they are not qualified is nothing new and is one variant of the well-known Peter Principle which states, “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” Speaking of which, though written in 1969, the book, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong, by Laurence J. Peter, is a great read: short, funny, and piercingly true. You can get it used on Amazon for $.01 if you’re interested.

What are your thoughts about supervisors needing technical expertise at the level of their crew or staff? ~Amy Stephson